Ecology, Fast and Slow

07/06/2020

Originally Published at Earth Island Journal

Civilization 2.0 - the pipedream of the ecomodernists - is a mere hardware upgrade of our own accelerated times.


ALMOST EVERY MORNING for the past 12 years, Silvia Panjoj has left at dawn and walked up a hardened mud path behind her house in the Guatemalan highlands towards a cluster of grey buildings on the other side of the valley. On her head, she carries a plastic tub filled with maize kernels - a bounty grown less than 15 meters from her house. A straggle of other women, also dressed in the bright ancestral clothing of these parts, shadow in front and behind her. After five minutes of steep incline, Panjoj passes in front of the local shop, greets a neighbor, and enters the darkness of a windowless concrete shed.

The belt of a small milling machine cranks. A queue forms. The first of her neighbors kneels beside the machine, using her hand to scoop the milled maize into her container, making sure to waste nothing. Next, it is Panjoj's turn. A minute later - after paying the equivalent of about US 20 cents for the service - she is walking home with the raw material for the day's tortillas.

Before the arrival of the fossil fuel-powered mill, using her manual grinding stone or metate would take her almost two hours of work. Now that tool lies on the floor in the corner of her kitchen, used only to grind corn for the chickens. In this mountain cloudscape, a quiet struggle appears to play itself out in front of my eyes.

***

WE ARE ALL environmentalists now, it seems. Ecological thought has entered realms which, for many decades, it appeared to be excluded from. The Green New Deal (GND), for instance, has sparked international debate, despite hitting a political brick wall. Environmental protest movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, have shut down city centers around the world, forcing numerous local and national governments to declare a state of "climate emergency" (with little tangible follow-through, of course).The necessity of moving beyond a growth-based economic paradigm has even been discussed at the European Parliament.

As we begin to pull our heads out of the sand, however, what exactly it might mean to be an "environmentalist" has become an increasingly fraught affair. Greens are no longer easy to simply caricature as quixotic hippies, though some continue to try. Today, they are as likely to be found in business suits, speaking in hard numbers, and flying to the latest important international conference at which nothing is achieved. While some centrists plug their ears and pretend there is a common-sense understanding of vacuous terms like "sustainability" and "sustainable development," quarrels about the heart and soul of environmentalism are intensifying.

Such debates are suffused in rhetoric and mudslinging: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? A progressive eco-modernist - whether of a capitalist or socialist flavor - in favor of technocratic quick fixes, or a regressive Malthusian doomer, a Luddite who thinks civilization is an incurable disease? Do you even still fall into those musty old brackets labelled "left-wing" or "right-wing," or have you succumbed to political inversion and become an "up-winger" or a "down-winger"?

Such labeling is a virtue-signaling device in today's ideological maelstrom; the epithets increasingly say more about the person using the label than whomever they are applied to. The commonplace dismissal of degrowth advocates as pessimistic "doomers," for instance, often simply reasserts the "optimist" tribe's belief in the myth of progress - the absolute superiority of post-Enlightenment modernity. Given the fruitlessness of this back and forth, it may be time to ask whether more helpful alternatives may be at hand.

***

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF disorienting ecological, social, and technological change known as the Great Acceleration. Twenty-four-hour society has conquered the overdeveloped world. Spreading rapidly, it pervades the everyday, pushing aside tradition and geographical particularity: fast food, fast fashion, fast communication, fast travel, fast entertainment. There are no limits, and thus everything - from the materials we use, to our very bodies and minds - must be disciplined to obey what British sociologist Barbara Adam called the "timescapes of modernity." Computer processors of a speed unimaginable just decades ago; factory-farmed chickens that reach slaughter weight in just five weeks, so heavy that their legs cannot support them; a transatlantic weekend break in Mexico, back just in time for work on Monday morning.

A school of thinkers - the accelerationists - celebrate this, arguing that all that holds us back from a prosperous, sustainable future is our unwillingness to embrace this temporal trajectory. "The material platform of neoliberalism does not need to be destroyed," they say in their manifesto. Rather, "it needs to be repurposed towards common ends." This message is becoming increasingly popular. We want more, we want it now, and a meshwork of accelerative technologies - the most important of which have yet to be invented, of course - will provide.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman proposed that two systems define human thought: System 1, which results in fast and instinctive cognition, and System 2, which is slower and more deliberative. Modern environmentalism, I would argue, is today defined not by murky abstractions such as optimism or pessimism, or up-winging and down-winging, but by divergent approaches to something so pervasive that it slips from our vision entirely: Technology, fast and slow. We ignore the crucial role of these two dispositions - materialized in almost everything around us - at our peril. After all, technologies are intimately connected to time - they compress it, mold it, crumple it.

When environmentalists bemoan capitalism for its self-destructive growth imperative, overlooking that state socialism was an equal or greater destructive force, they neglect what powered them both: a mutual appreciation for accelerative technological systems. While fast technology smooths and streamlines such destruction, forever promising to stave off ecological collapse through the rapid future deployment of control-based and necessarily global technological systems, a slow ecotechnics materializes a different temporality. The latter conveys a material politics of uncertainty, humility, and regeneration, attuned to gradualism and local ecological systems. Fast ecology is proactionary while slow ecology is generally precautionary; one pushes the accelerator, the other the brake.

The contrast between these technological paradigms comes to the fore when we realize that the majority of so-called "eco-solutions" posited these days are premised on the very socio-technological framing which got us into this mess in the first place. Civilization 2.0 - the pipedream of the ecomodernists and accelerationists - is a mere hardware upgrade of our own accelerated times.

Forget human-scale approaches requiring complex sociopolitical shifts, such as agro-ecology - which applies ecological knowledge and social principles to the cultivation of food, or the repair economy - which saves natural resources and reduces waste, or bicycling infrastructures - which can improve health while weaning us off our fossil fuel dependency.

Instead, let's swap in nuclear power and mass renewables for coal and gas, geoengineering for a Gaian earth, electric cars and planes for fossil fuel-powered transport, smart technologies for dumb electronica, asteroid mining for child slavery in the Congo, and genetically modified and hybrid crops for biome-specific varieties. Then we could ensure that life glides along just as before.

These exalted technologies, taken individually, have been the crux of some of the most contentious environmental debates in recent decades; yet, if we join the dots, there is one thing which unites them: They are the epitome of fast technology.

***

"A MESSAGE FROM THE Future," an animated video released to inspire support for the Green New Deal, opens with an image of US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a couple of decades hence, sitting on a bullet train whizzing from New York to Washington DC. While there is much to laud in the proposed package - with nods to land preservation, regeneration, and addressing systemic injustice - it is ultimately self-contradictory. Instead of grappling with problems of implementation and capitalism, its cop-out is to embrace the fast technological paradigm, framed in the vague language of "smart grids" and "deploying new capacity." As one of the more astute observers has stated, the GND "risks becoming a sort of Sisyphean reform, rolling the rock of emissions reductions up the hill each day only to have a growing, energy-hungry economy knock it back down to the bottom each night."

What could be a better symbol for the true costs of the GND's envisioned civilizational upgrade than the lethal tip of Ocasio-Cortez's bullet train - soaked in the blood of birds and the entrails of insects and other beings too slow to get out of its way? Environmentalism has strayed far from its source when such questions are mere secondary considerations.

Can we imagine the great slow ecologists - an Ivan Illich, a Henry David Thoreau, or a Wendell Berry, say - propounding the expansion of high-speed trains to get from one extractive urban core to another? The thought is absurd, and so it should be. Illich described us as prisoners of "the age of speed" and, unlike advocates of the GND, they would never isolate such technologies from their context, ignoring the infrastructures they require, the lifestyles they reinforce, and the ecological communities they shred.

If already-existing accelerationism is so ecocidal, shouldn't we pause to consider the threat of fast technologies more seriously?

***

LET US RETURN TO Silvia Panjoj's village, in the highlands of Guatemala. Whatever "advanced" civilization is, it appears they don't want it. Five hundred years after the conquistadors arrived to subjugate this part of the world, most people here still don't speak Spanish. For as long as they have been able, they subsist and resist. There are many ways to view the arrival of the fossil fuel mill to such a place: the victory of convenience over hard work, the arrival of modernity versus the backwardness of tradition. It can be viewed as a fall or an advance: the first step on the ladder of modernity, or a sign of incorporation into the technological system which undermines our living planet.

With the time Panjoj now saves, she weaves by hand as part of a co-operative of women weavers. This is a slow, methodical process, which, in an age of mechanical production, would seem outdated to the luxury communists and eco-modernists. Her clothing, however, is an important symbol of the community she is from, its designs inflected by her history and the land that surrounds her, evolving and adapting over a timescale of decades and centuries. Connected in a web of place and meaning, this is as far from "fast" fashion as you can get, and she likes it that way.

There is no linearity of progress in this, no grand story or desperation to engage with a global economy. By using the mill, she is not actively abandoning an "archaic" and "backwards" lifeway for a shiny modern one. Not yet. As she sits on the ground to weave, however, she does so safe in the knowledge that if the mill should fail, if the oil runs out or becomes too expensive, her metate - slow as it may be - will still be sitting there in the corner of her kitchen, waiting. She still has options. Do you?

Tom Smith - Ecological Writing
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